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From the Watergate Break-in to a Broken News Media

Key players in 'All the President's Men' reflect on what 35 years have wrought

By Marc Savlov, Fri., April 15, 2011

Bob Woodward (l) and Carl Bernstein in 2005 at the Harry Ransom Center, which holds their Watergate papers
Bob Woodward (l) and Carl Bernstein in 2005 at the Harry Ransom Center, which holds their Watergate papers
Photo courtesy of Eric Beggs

This month marks the 35th anniversary of the release of Alan J. Pakula's film version of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward's nonfiction book, All the President's Men. It was one of the best of a handful of films in the crusading reporter subgenre and one that not only has withstood the test of time but also, rewatched today, provokes this thought: "What the hell has happened to the Fourth Estate?"

In the summer of 1972, when the unlikely duo of Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein stumbled onto what would turn out to be the most important hard news story of the century, investigative journalism and the gritty and laborious, but ultimately necessary, processes it entailed reached a zenith. Public people in positions of great – and presumably unassailable – power went to prison as a result of Woodward and Bernstein's dogged determination not to allow what was initially perceived as a nonstory to die out. They stuck to their guns, their guts, and their deadlines. And in the end, President Richard Milhous Nixon, facing impeachment and charges of high crimes and misdemeanors, was forced out of office by genuine, bipartisan outrage. Absolute hubris corrupted absolutely.

It was a brief, shining moment when American journalism not only shook the pillars of power but also very nearly toppled them. Pakula's gripping, conspiratorial newsroom thriller about that time – shot with a noir-ish edge by legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis and starring the all-American Robert Redford and a squirrelly Dustin Hoffman as Woodward and Bernstein – briefly, perhaps apocryphally, ignited a run on journalism schools. Every freshman with a reporter's notebook and a stubby Eberhard Faber No. 2 pencil wanted to be the next crusading truth-seeker. What we ended up with was Geraldo Rivera. But what a movie!

"I hadn't seen the film in 25 years until I went to a showing in 2005 at NYU," recalls Woodward, speaking by phone from his home in Washington, D.C. "We brought our young daughter who was then about 7 or 8. She squirmed a lot during the movie, and afterwards I asked her what she thought of it. Being raised in Washington, she talks kind of like a policy wonk, and she said, 'a) the guy playing you doesn't look like you at all, and b), boring, boring, boring.' I think they're both right. It's a film about chasing names, connections, amounts of money and so forth, and I would not expect [the film] to have survived as it clearly has."

Granted, The Parallax View it's not, but All the President's Men, which opened in theatres nationally on April 9, 1976, arrived cloak-and-daggered in the dark gravitas of recent history with flawless supporting performances from Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, and Jason Robards as Post editors Harry Rosenfeld, Howard Simons, and Ben Bradlee, respectively. What it also had, to a remarkable degree, was a credible sense of what a bustling, big-paper newsroom was really like. Echoing its lead characters, it was by turns manic, obsessive, and paranoid. Of course, by the time the film came out, the bitter ending was already known to all.

"What I took away from watching the movie six years ago," says Bernstein, "was that most of the good work was done at night. I think, and there are certain exceptions, that you get the truth at night and lies during the day. All presidents, all institutions, all individuals try to [control the message], but I think they spend more time on it now. They try to have the reins on everything. Of course they can't, but to get around that you have to go into the night."

All the President's Men is, indeed, a nightscape noir, replete with secret meetings in underground parking garages and a sense of benighted anxiety – hopped up on gallons of caffeine and Bernstein's near-constant nicotine intake – that wouldn't be out of place in one of Fritz Lang's UFA-lensed Dr. Mabuse angst fests.

Robert Redford, whose production company Wildwood Enterprises produced the film, was in the process of doing a whistle-stop promotional tour by train for The Candidate when he first heard about the Watergate break-in from members of the political and entertainment press who accompanied him on his trip.

"I asked them what had happened with that story, which had died out right away, and there was a kind of cynical glancing between some of the journalists," Redford recalls. "The inclination was that [the story] was kind of deeper and maybe closer to home, closer to the White House.

"So I asked [the reporters] what they were going to do about it, and then I got a lesson in politics: They said, 'Look, Nixon is going to win in a landslide, McGovern is going to self-destruct, and nobody wants to be on the wrong side of this guy when he gets into office because he's got a switchblade mentality. Secondly, the only thing the public's going to be interested in is whether Hank Aaron breaks Babe Ruth's home run record. Besides, it's dirty tricks, and both parties do it to each other. It's never gonna come out.'"

Nonetheless, Redford paid close attention to the papers while prepping for The Way We Were. He began seeing more small pieces on the break-in at the national headquarters of the Democratic Party in the Watergate complex in D.C. "I didn't remember the names, I just always remembered it was two guys."

Eventually, as the story began to snowball, he came across a profile on Woodward and Bernstein themselves: "I thought, now that's a really interesting story. One guy was a Jew, the other guy was a WASP; one guy was an extreme liberal and the other guy was a Republican; one guy was considered a better writer than the other; they didn't like each other, and yet they had to work together. I thought that I would love to do a little black-and-white movie that maybe I could produce with two unknown actors. Just a small movie."

Redford made a series of phone calls to the two reporters that went unanswered. In the midst of a justly paranoid time for them, both Woodward and Bernstein believed the calls were actually just another "dirty trick" by members of CREEP, the aptly acronymed Republican Committee To Re-Elect the President.

Robert Redford (l) and Dustin Hoffman playing Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, respectively, in <i>All the President's Men</i>
Robert Redford (l) and Dustin Hoffman playing Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, respectively, in All the President's Men

"I finally met with them," explains Redford, "and they said they were very much interested in [the movie idea], but they said were going to be writing a book about this.

"At that time it hadn't bottomed out yet, and I said: 'I don't really need to wait for your book because wherever this goes, the only thing that I'm interested in is telling a story about what you guys did that other people weren't doing and the country didn't know about. Whatever happens, history will take care of it, but I'm interested in the story nobody knows about – how it came about.'"

Redford's key to telling the Watergate story, which was then still very much unfolding, was a stroke of brilliance.

"I told the studio that the way I saw it, the film should have a thriller aspect to it, like a detective story. Also, it had to show the obsessive behavior that overtook these guys as they got into this story, and their evolving relationship as they had to work together, as a team. To me, that was the core of the movie. And I wanted to stop the movie [prior to Nixon's resignation]. I thought that would make it a better movie because history would provide the answer, and it was going to be a very big answer. It was never about what the public knew; it was about what the public didn't know. It was the story beneath the story they think they know. Actually, the hardest part was convincing the studio that [the film] wasn't going to be tired, old news that the public wouldn't want anything to do with."

As it turned out, the moviegoing public was hardly sated by the then-concluded Watergate scandal. Nominated for eight Academy Awards, All the President's Men won four, and to date the film has netted a domestic gross of $70,600,000, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com. Not bad for an $8.5 million "detective movie" with no car chases, no sex, no violence, and Dustin Hoffman at his most whiningly, winningly menschy. On top of that, the film has been widely credited with helping turn the 1976 electoral tide away from incumbent Republican President Gerald R. Ford (his strategically clumsy pardoning of Nixon was widely mocked, by no one more so than Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Live) and toward a little-known, toothy, born-again, Georgia peanut farmer named Jimmy Carter.

But looking at the political and media battlefields as they are today – simultaneously bloody and bloodless, craven and creepy, and under serious siege by everything from WikiLeaks to the unreliable, often un-fact-checkable Internet in general (not to mention a severe lack of life-sustaining revenue streams) – one has to ask, again, what happened?

"In terms of the wrong lessons being drawn," reflects Bernstein, "too many reporters saw their function as prosecutorial when in fact that had never been either our intent or our methodology. What [Bob Woodward and I] came to realize, perhaps more consciously than we otherwise would have – though I think unconsciously we always understood this – was that good reporting is really the best obtainable version of the truth. That's a phrase Bob and I used a lot. And to the extent that that became the lesson of the Watergate reporting, it was a terrific thing. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that that's the lasting impression that has been formed."

Indeed. With the advent of the Digital Age and the perpetual news cycle, hard journalism, investigative and otherwise, has taken a hit. Probably not a terminal one, but the credibility gap between those who report the news and those who ingest (or, too often, regurgitate) the reportage has rarely if ever been wider. And considering the globalized nature of news gathering and distribution, not to mention the nerve-racking state of global geopolitics in the broader spectrum, that's just plain bad news.

Bernstein: "I'd hope that there would still be a reverence for the best obtainable version of the truth in this different journalistic environment, but I think that's difficult, partly because of the audience itself.

"The traditional journalistic audience wanted and expected, to a certain extent, newspapers to bring them an accurate and fair picture of the world and their community. Today, I think there is less of that expectation and even desire for it. I think that too many readers, viewers, are looking not for the best obtainable version of the truth but rather are looking for reenforcement of their own perceptions, prejudices, and ideology, as well as titillation."

Exciting as Woodward and Bernstein's work and the film made from it was, titillation of the news-reading public was, obviously, furthest from their minds. How unlike the mid-1990s faux-investigative reporting on Whitewater, Lewinsky, and the rest? And, as Redford notes with a sigh, "how depressing."

So what then, exactly, is the legacy of Woodward and Bernstein's Watergate work, and Redford and Pakula's filmed version?

"I think that the great thing about Watergate," says Bernstein, "is that the American system worked perhaps as well as it has at any time in its history. It was a triumph of the democratic process and of how the system can function.

"But I would say that it was the last time that the system functioned on a big scale and canvas so well. Today, partisan and ideological warfare in the Congress, the media, and in the citizenry itself is poisonous to an extent that it was not at the time of Watergate.

"Does that mean that our system can't function magnificently again? I don't think we know, but so far the answer has been that we're becoming increasingly dysfunctional as a citizenry, as a body politic, and as a government. There's a failure of seriousness in the political system, in the journalism, and particularly on the part of the people of the country to demand otherwise."

To quote Bill McKay, Robert Redford's idealistic-if-reluctant senatorial candidate character in The Candidate: "What do we do now?"

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